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Connection, Routine, and Helping Others
How teens with mental health challenges can get through the pandemic
Tayia Day
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Marina Stolerman is Clinical Director at The Fostering Connection, a group of therapists that provide free therapy to foster care-involved youth. I interviewed her via Zoom on April 25.

Tayia Day: How do the pandemic and the lockdown affect people with anxiety or PTSD?

Marina Stolerman: For people with trauma that hasn’t been completely worked through, any new trauma is going to feel more intense. If I was attacked by a dog, I’m still affected by that experience when something else scary happens. Even if it has nothing to do with a dog, it’s going to bring up those old feelings too. For people who had to shift homes around, who haven’t felt safe in their homes, who haven't had much freedom, or choices, or a voice, dealing with the pandemic can definitely feel much more challenging.

TD: Is the pandemic harder on teens?

MS: Yes, because at that stage, we are extraordinarily dependent on our relationships with our peers. Teens thrive off socialization with peers more than other groups. So this type of isolation is very hard. Little children can play with toys; adults are comfortable with family, but with teens their peers are number one.

TD: Does social distancing cause depression? I always had anxiety, but this feeling of being depressed is new. It’ll go away for a week, then come back. I don’t know how to deal with that.

MS: This is completely normal. There’s a secondary mental health crisis to this crisis. Over 6,000 people responded to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call for volunteer mental health workers. (New York State’s Office of Mental Health has an emotional support helpline at 1-844-863-9314.)

It’s not you, it’s everyone. But the tools are the same. Get a mental health counselor if possible. Physical exercise can also improve mood. So can any kind of mindfulness activity, like meditation or deep breathing.

Create more pleasure in your day. Find something you enjoy, and do only that thing and really enjoy it. For example, while cooking a meal, don’t also listen to the news or check your Instagram. Just pay attention to the colors of the onions, the smells of the spices.

Watch an actual movie, instead of clicking around YouTube. Maybe spend an hour just writing. Lots of people are keeping a pandemic journal, a history of this time.

Create a routine and stick to it. Change out of your PJs, change outfits for work, or school, and relaxation.Think of one or two things you would have done before the quarantine and find ways to do them safely now. Instead of going to the movies with friends, you can have a watch party via the internet.

YouTube has instructional videos on everything: making a mask, painting, deep breathing, yoga, meditation. There are so many things you can do for free if you have WiFi. Most museums around the world have video tours online.

Another thing that’s very helpful is to help others. Helping someone makes you feel good, and it gives you meaning and purpose. Make a mask for someone, bake some cookies for someone. If a friend is having a hard time, send them a meal. Maybe you know some little kids having a hard time; you could offer to read to them on Zoom for a half hour.

You and I can’t invent a vaccine. But we can help people on the frontlines, neighbors, and friends.

TD: It’s hard for me to talk to others. I sometimes have suicidal thoughts. I feel like giving up. I have stress with school, plus the anxiety of the virus. What can I do?

MS: Anyone who really feels like they’re going to hurt themselves needs to call 911. If your friend tells you they want to kill themself, call 911 and tell them that you think your friend is going to. Get immediate help in that case.

But most people don’t plan to kill themselves even if they might be feeling hopeless or helpless.

It’s important to acknowledge how you're’ feeling. Then, normalize it for yourself: This is how everyone is feeling. A third of the planet is under lockdown. I’m not crazy, I’m responding to extraordinary times.

Also, we all have a right to our feelings. It doesn’t matter that someone else has it worse.

I owe it to myself to feel better; how can I do that? Call a therapist or a friend. Or go outside. This moment will pass. You will feel better.

In my experience, people are usually glad when people open up. We may feel like we’re burdening them, but we may be giving them a chance to open up. When we’re listening, we’re less focused on our own problems.

Love is infinite. It’s not like you use it up. The more you talk to people, the more you open up. The more you comfort others, the more love there is. Of course, if someone is overwhelmed right then, then talk to someone else. But overall, we all want a break from concentrating on ourselves, so don’t feel bad about asking for help.

TD: How long is this going to last?

MS: We don’t know, and one thing that’s hard for all people is the unknown. It’s a small comfort, but there are billions of people around the world also wondering when this will end.

We all need to cut ourselves a break, this is new for everybody. The same way they tell people facing a horrible illness, take it day by day. So make your focus smaller: What are my goals for today? What am I looking forward to?

Now that the weather is getting better, you can be outside together as long as you’re six feet apart and wearing a mask. Yesterday, I took a distanced walk with my sister; she was in the road and I was on the sidewalk (there were no cars around).

TD: I am scared because I know people whose family members have died. It’s scary how you can have it and not know.

image by oObsessed, Creative Commons

MS: It can help calm you down to review the facts. The New York Times’ coronavirus coverage is free. If you’re going outside and wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, avoiding contact with people who have tested positive, and washing your hands for 20 seconds when you come inside; then you’re really minimizing your chances of getting sick. The number of people dying is frightening and sad. But remember that almost all young, healthy people do recover if they get the virus.

Knowledge is power. Review the facts and be careful. Wear a mask. Be especially careful to avoid being indoors for long with people aside from your immediate housemates. Go outside--by yourself, or socially distancing with a friend. You need exercise, you need sunlight, you need connection, and you need a change of scenery.

TD: What are some good strategies for extroverted people who are missing everything?

MS: Do as much socializing as you can using technology. One way is to have casual texts and phone conversations you would have had in normal life with classmates, friends, and family. But also set specific times to socialize.

The main difference is that you have to be intentional and organized because we don’t have built-in structures like normal life. “Oh I’m going to go out and I’ll see my friends Saturday.” We don’t have that now. You have to make plans.

Say, on Friday night, you pick two or three friends and do something together online. You could watch a movie or show together, using apps like Scener or Twoseven or Syncplay. There are free concerts and other things to do together.

Maybe you just talk, but make it intentional. Discuss make-up tips, or everyone bring recipes, or have Zoom theme parties. Do something that makes it fun.

TD: I miss real school. Remote learning is not enough.

MS: I have yet to meet any child or young adult who likes remote learning. A huge part of learning is the social aspect. It's about being able to turn and see what people are doing, and moving from class to class, seeing the tree out of the window, using all your senses. Just looking at a screen is definitely a reduction.

Find adaptations. If you’re a visual learner and you have a whiteboard or even paper, sketch what you mean and ask the teacher, “What about this?”

Make your work space comfortable and more enjoyable for yourself. Have a good chair and a glass of water by you. Think of something you did when you went to school and try to reproduce it. Did you wear perfume to class? Wear perfume. Use your lucky pencil. Wear your favorite thing.

See if there are classmates you can do a follow-up meeting with. Ask the teacher to keep the Zoom meeting open for chatting.

Use something fun to get you to do the task you least want to do. If you really don’t want to do your math homework, schedule your coffee and donuts meeting with friends for after that. Or do your exercise or deep breathing around math class.

Create a rhythm to your day with a schedule.

TD: My relationships with my friends feel weird. We’re more used to hanging out and being more natural and spontaneous. This phone calling is not what I’m used to, plus I don’t want to bother people.

MS: We need to nurture our relationships more. Be honest, be real. Call a friend and say, “I feel really sad and really lonely,” and they can answer you. This is the time to double down on relationships. Make an appointment to hang out with a friend every day. You need more structure.

The more intentional you can be, the better. If you call someone and they don’t answer, all that means is they couldn’t answer the phone right then. Don’t make up stories about why they’re not answering.

We can still get connection, even though now it’s not a natural flow, a natural progression. People tell me, “I don't want to do online dating, I want it to be organic.” It’s like that. Of course it’s weird to say “At 1 o'clock I socialize with my friend,” but you have to do that now. People are resilient and adaptable.

TD: Do you have any advice for foster youth specifically?

MS: You don’t need deep roots to create a feeling of home, of coziness. Make your space homier, even if it doesn’t feel like your final home. Maybe hang something new on your wall, or get a plant and water it and clean the leaves. Order a candle with a smell you like, play music you love.

You may just want to be like roommates, but try to find some way to connect with your foster family—play a game, find out about their family, look at pictures together. Share memories by asking each other questions like, “When did you learn how to ride a bike?” Play 20 questions, play charades. Watch a comedy together.

TD: What should I do if it’s taking a while for me to get access to a therapist?

MS: During this crisis, I am making myself available to anyone who needs to talk. Maybe not an ongoing therapy relationship, but if you’re feeling panicky and need to talk, write me at marinastolerman@yahoo.com. If it’s an acute emergency, call 911, but if you need to talk through panic or to do some breathing exercises, I’m here for you.


Get Help

New York State’s Office of Mental Health’s emotional support helpline
1-844-863-9314

Managing Anxiety in an Anxiety-Provoking Situation

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

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